Saturday, April 2, 2016


We came to Forever the ABC TV show in a roundabout way that was, on reflection, probably a good thing.  Had we been watching it real-time over fall 2014 and spring 2015, we would have suffered the anguish of trying to appeal its cancellation and ultimately failing.  On a trip to the US in October 2014, we caught what we didn’t know then was the second episode, DVR’ed on a relative’s machine; through word-of-mouth, we had been recommended the show.  In the same trip, we caught what we didn’t realize was episode 10.  On another trip in March, we caught episode 17.  It helped that all of these episodes were pretty good, episode 2 (in my opinion, and in retrospect) one of the best of the season, and episode 10 with a killer climax. I admit I’m partial to the modern DVD box set method of TV consumption, which can allow you to binge-watch or not, according to your preference or mood.  It’s to its credit that Forever worked well as a binge-watch, that despite its reasonably formulaic quality, this didn’t threaten the integrity of the show and indeed, ramped up suspense to a near-frenzy pitch, for me at least.  

Forever is, to sum it up in an easily digestible format, about Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffud), a doctor who, by 2014, has been alive for over 200 years.  He was shot and drowned in 1814, and every time he’s been killed since then, he pops back up, alive and naked, in the nearest body of water.  By 2014, he’s taken a job at the New York Medical Examiners office, a role that suits him well and puts his many years’ observational skills to good use.  To such good use, in fact, that after he helps solve at least one case for NYPD detective Jo Martinez (Alana de la Garza), they become a team.  They are joined by her colleagues Mike Hanson (Donnie Keshawarz) and Lt. Joanna Reece (Lorraine Toussaint) as well as junior pathologist Lucas (Joel David Moore).  Henry’s friend and confidant is Abe (Judd Hirsch), with whom he shares a house (complete with secret basement lab) and antiques store.  Another important character in the story is New York City, the backdrop for countless adventures which up the ante visually and in the narrative[1].

WARNING:  POSSIBLE SPOILERS ALERT – I will try to signpost big spoilers but cannot guarantee the following won’t contain small spoilers that you would learn, for example, in the first two episodes

That Forever succeeded with me personally is a bit of a surprise, given that I don’t really like police procedurals (unless, I suppose, they have some odd anachronistic element like, for example, Ashes to Ashes, about which I had the same devotion); to be honest, I don’t much like US network TV, given its general reliance on formula, its lack of adventurousness, its cookie-cutter characters, and its pat assumptions.  It cannot be argued that Forever doesn’t rely on a formula, and one that gets cemented pretty quickly.  Each episode gives you a case of the week + dollop of flashback + usually something contributing to the overall narrative arc, the mystery that focuses on who and what is Henry Morgan.  The mystery of the week is usually pretty well-written, but the brilliance, I suppose, is the integration of the flashbacks, which give insight both large and small into the life of a man forced into situations most of us mere mortals can only imagine.  

It’s been often said that the crux of a successful TV show is “the gang”; to that end, are Forever’s characters mere types?  The relationship between Abe and Henry is completely unique and powerful in its uniqueness.  Henry and his one-time wife Abigail, a nurse, found Abe as a baby in 1945 in Europe’s concentration camps.  In adopting him, Henry has given Abe an exceptional vantage point as he grows older but his father does not; many characters eventually assume that Henry is Abe’s son.  This means they are protective of each other, and their interactions can range from that of contemporaries to Abe’s disgust with the “old man”’s old-fashionedness (he can’t appreciate jazz, doesn’t have a cell phone, doesn’t use a computer, and so on).  Abe has to rescue Henry when he turns up naked in the East River after dying[2], and they share a bond over Abe’s disappeared adopted mother, a thread that isn’t resolved until the final episode.  This is underlined by seeing Abe at different ages in the flashbacks, from a baby to a child (1955) to a teen (1965) to a young man and then a middle-aged man (1985). Judd Hirsch, one of the first of the regulars to be cast, is perfect for the role.

Henry—winningly played by Ioan Gruffud—is himself sufficiently interesting to carry the weight of the show; classically handsome (and with the kind of hair that lends itself perfectly to successive historical periods), beautifully able to express emotions, and with good comic timing—Forever is, despite all its moody trappings, marginally a comedy.  There are multiple references to Henry’s similarities to Sherlock Holmes, epitomized by his “Sherlock Scan.”  To be honest I must be one of the few people who haven’t hopped aboard the Sherlock bandwagon, in any form, so I’d be much happier if we could drop the notion Henry Morgan inspired Conan Doyle to write Sherlock.  Furthermore, I normally can’t stand the ubiquitous TV custom of monologues from the characters that offer moral bookends to the action onscreen; yet from a 200-year-old, it seems less pretentious somehow.  I think it’s hard not to be charmed by Henry and his eccentric ways; like the song goes, he’s the Englishman in New York[3].  Furthermore, as his moral dilemmas pile up, it’s hard not sympathize with his (completely fantastical) predicament.  

Nevertheless, in the light of long-lived wanderers (such as, appropriately, Captain Jack Harkness), Henry has stayed a remarkably decent human being whose heart is always in the right place and whose desire to help is genuine.  He is pleasant and seems to enjoy the finer things in life (from food and wine to music and art).  Something must have inspired him in the early decades of the 19th century to become a doctor; his wealthy mercantile background could have made him simply a gentleman.  As the incarcerated priest in “Diamonds Are Forever” seems to indicate, Henry’s curse/affliction/gift seems destined for some purpose.

Henry’s more mundane colleagues at NYPD are less complex, though the format of the series seems to limit character development.  Mike Hanson and Lucas are played mainly for laughs, and I would have liked to have seen an episode skewed toward Lucas to make him more than the ultimate fan-boy (though this facet of his character is acknowledged and subverted a number of times, most memorably in “The Frustrating Thing About Psychopaths” as his knowledge and devotion to graphic novels becomes crucial to the plot and also serves as provocation for the complicated ethics of that episode).  That “Punk Is Dead” is able to tell us some new things about Hanson is mainly down to production team and fan response.  This is true of the “tough cop in charge,” Lt. Reece, whose personality breaks free from time to time (most notably in “6 AM”) but mostly remains a type.   I was hoping we’d get to see some flashback to her as a cop on the beat, and evidently many of the deleted scenes in the episodes served to flesh her out.

When I dropped in on episodes 2 and 10, I felt pretty cynically toward Jo Martinez.  She looks like a Disney princess made flesh (as Henry himself points out, her proportions make her particularly attractive), and I felt like this relationship was the height of predictability.  However, I was wrong.  I have been used to some slow-burners in series before, but none quite so slow as this one.  It is allegedly not even certain that Jo and Henry (or “Mortinez” as the shippers are calling them) would have become a couple in season 2 or ever.  Martinez still tends ever-so-slightly toward character shorthand, and I would have liked to have seen an episode that focused on her character development without having to do with her dead husband or her n’er-do-well father (her Bechdel test triumphs only by her complete devotion to work).  Strangely—and this may not be a good thing—her character comes alive a bit more when she is romanced by millionaire hotelier Isaac Monroe (think Billy Shipton in “Blink”) in “Dead Men Tell Long Tales” and “Best Foot Forward.”  

Henry’s romantic entanglements are more mixed; I found Iona Payne, the dominatrix therapist, slightly irritating in her first episode “The Ecstasy of Agony” though she was more rounded as a character in “Memories of Murder” and I wasn’t totally against the idea of her and Henry (okay, so I am a bit of a “Mortinez” myself).  

Henry is fascinated by death, not through a morbid interest but because he would like to understand his condition—and perhaps die someday.  From the first episode, he becomes aware that he may not be alone, as his mystery caller purports to be a 2,000-year-old immortal.  The situation throws Henry into a panic; as he observes to Abe, in the past when his trail has been discovered, he has moved away and outlived his accuser.  With “Adam,” this proves impossible, leading us down an inevitable path riddled with tension. 


I was very pleased to find out that Adam was being played by an underrated[4] actor, Burn Gorman, who I suppose was chosen for the role for, among other things, his ability to play more-English-than-the-English harmless[5] as well as stone-facedly-evil-but-somehow-American-accented psychopath.  The suspense ramped up by “The Man in the Killer Suit” and “Skinny Dipper” was so great that I couldn’t imagine where the series was going (and with half of the season to go!).  “Skinny Dipper” must rank as one of the most un-Christmasy Christmas episodes of all time, though the look on Henry’s face as Adam is finally revealed (as the mild-mannered, tea-sipping psychologist who totally manipulated Henry), is absolutely shocking and terrifying.  

I did wonder if the final episodes were going to be able to deliver on the heights we’d achieved in the pilot, “Look Before You Leap,” “The Night in Question” (which drops some exquisite bombshells about the disappearance of Abigail) and “The Last Death of Henry Morgan.”  While I was a bit disappointed that Henry would resort to cheaper and cheaper tricks when faced with dire situations, and while I felt “The Last Death . . .” was sliiiightly less gripping than “Skinny Dipper,” it did tie up some loose ends nicely as a bookend to the rip-roaring pilot.    Forever ends in a way that could easily be picked up again later, though I was impressed at the way Henry chose to deal with Adam in their final confrontation.  

Reportedly, all of the cast seem to have appreciated the history embedded in the series and this served in part to attract them to their roles.  This is part of what delighted me about Forever and made me a devoted fan.  Certainly, the strokes are broad, but they are focused on two Big Issues:  the Holocaust and slavery.  The former is embodied in Abe but comes to a head in one of my favorite episodes, “Hitler on the Half Shell,” which, while not excusing the atrocities of the Nazi regime, shows that evil is unpredictable and not absolute.  The audience cringes in horror as Adam shows up at Abe’s Antiques; after what Adam tells him, Henry has to accept that even “evil” has aspects of grey.  This episode sees Abe identify his birth parents for the first time, which is touching.  

The latter is tied directly to Henry’s identity and immortality, sensitively fleshed out, I thought, in “Dead Men Tell Long Tales.”  Henry is in this sense startlingly modern in his outlook, as he berates his father for involvement in the slave trade and dies on the Empress of Africa trying to save the life of a slave.  It comes as a rather shocking further revelation that he was going to stage a slave revolt on the ship and fears that his death caused the destruction of the ship and death of the 300 people on board.  In “Dead Men Tell Long Tales,” it is rather miraculously proven that his efforts did allow the slaves to escape to freedom (Canada?).    

Madness is also a theme of Forever, mainly in “The Ecstasy of Agony” and “Social Engineering” as this introduces Henry’s first wife, Nora.  In a subversion of the literary motif, it’s Nora who puts her husband in an asylum and apparently suffers no qualms; it isn’t clear what she thinks of his escape and disappearance a year later, but the past comes back to literally haunt Henry in 1865.  Working at a London hospital, Henry is discovered again by the aged Nora, though her remorse over his confinement leads to tragedy.  I was surprised that the fact Henry consented to his first wife being confined to an asylum in poetic justice of his previous plight got so little examination, especially in a quite rigorous episode like “Social Engineering.”  There’s room for a lot of historical periods dramatized weekly, though the fallow periods give room for thought.  

I’m sincerely glad I got to watch this show, and I hope you will considering watching it, too.  I hope it will come back for another series someday! 

[1] Though one wonders if the scale of the show contributed to an expense that was an element in the show’s cancellation?
[2] It’s never quite clear how Abe knows.
[3] It’s interesting to me that Gruffud’s accent is allowed to go Welsh as much as it likes but he’s always described as the ultimate Englishman.  That’s a journal article in itself, representing nationalism in Forever.
[4] Though he seems to be getting a lot more work recently and is playing more three-dimensional characters, though it would be nice to see him actually play a hero.
[5] Quite similar to his role in Pacific Rim, actually!